Education Apps: Where Teaching and Privacy Collide

It is estimated that investment in education technology will reach $2 Billion this year. Much of that investment is in education app development. App developers are marketing directly to teachers and when they respond by downloading the apps, teachers are unintentionally putting student data at risk. At a time when concerns about student privacy are at an all-time high, individual teachers are adopting apps directly and bypassing the district’s security procedures.

In MCH’s 4th Annual Principals’ Assessment of Public Education, we asked principals who is making the decisions about which apps to adopt and use in their schools. 31.0% of the time it is the tech director who is making the decision with individual teachers following close behind at 30.2%.

Apps1

When principals were asked how they evaluate the educational value of apps, more than half replied that they depend on the opinion of other educators, and more than one-third of principals surveyed leave it to their teachers to decide.

Apps2

While this reflects the trust that principals have in teachers to decide which apps are best for their students, it is clearly a situation where district policy has not caught up to practice. The practical reality of teachers selecting their own apps is that there is an enormous amount of ad hoc decision making happening across the district that puts both infrastructure safety and student data security at risk.

Addressing the Growing Public Concern

There are a number of new efforts that reflect the escalation of student privacy in the national conversation about public education. Some districts are establishing guidelines and a review process for education apps acceptable for classroom use. Allowing teachers to choose their own apps from a list of approved digital tools allows more effective risk management across a district and sends a message about the primacy of protecting student’s personal data.

Recently the DOE released best practice recommendations to help schools determine if educational apps have strong enough data security policies. And the Student Privacy Pledge signed by dozens of Edtech companies and supported by President Obama, is a commitment to the protection of student privacy and effective communication between teachers, parents, and education officials.

There is also new bi-partisan legislation being put forward in the U.S. House of Representatives that is supported by a large number of nationally significant organizations such as the American Federation of Teachers, the National PTA, and Common Sense Media.

Provisions of this legislation include:

  • Barring edtech providers from directing advertising to students
  • Preventing the sale of student data to 3rd parties
  • Disallowing the creation of non-student profiles
  • Requiring that providers disclose to schools and the public the details of the information collected and how it is to be used.

With hundreds of thousands of available apps and the rising concerns about “big data” and protecting student privacy, it is inevitable that districts will establish tighter controls over the use of apps within the schools. At the same time, it is important to insure that all legal protections are updated to reflect new technologies, while a balance is struck between teacher choice and potential liability.